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The Perseverance of Michael Johnson

| August 8, 2017 | 20 Comments

MJ_1

Aug. 8, 1944 – July 25, 2017

Michael Johnson left this earth two weeks shy of what would have, today, been his 73rd birthday. Known in wider circles for his 1980s radio hits “Bluer Than Blue,” “This Night Won’t Last Forever,” “Give Me Wings” and “The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder,” he was known by his fans and friends in the music community as a consummate artist, musician, performer and kind and gentle soul.

I had been a fan of Michael’s before moving to Nashville in 1986, right about the time he’d gotten a record deal on a country music label and “Give Me Wings” was a No. 1 hit. When I started Performing Songwriter magazine in 1993, he became a regular contributor for almost a decade with a column called “The Solo Performer.” With each article he showed his skill, humor and respect for his craft. And on a personal level, he validated the magazine and me when I was just getting started and consistently felt like I was in over my head. He was fiercely supportive, appreciative and always present. And I loved him dearly.

Michael certainly didn’t have an easy road, by choice or circumstance. He walked through life carrying the bruised soul of an artist, in all its brilliant glory and weighty sorrow. He was hilariously funny, delivering self-deprecating one-liners with ease and perfect timing. He was an extraordinary musician, having studied classical guitar in Barcelona — a skill that was quite an anomaly in the country music world he so exquisitely graced. And he was unflinching in sharing his fears and regrets, helping those around him feel not quite so alone in theirs.

One of the things that moved me the most about Michael was his perseverance and dedication to his art and craft. I’m including one of my favorite essays of his below, which still makes me cry. It’s so him: the humor, the vulnerability, the frustration and the dedication. He wrote it in 1996, and over a decade later—shortly after having quadruple heart bypass surgery—he read it to a group of music industry leaders at an event I helped organize. He spoke openly about what it felt like to face the possibility of not being able to sing again after damage done to his throat when tubes were removed, painting a vivid picture to help those individuals see artists as far more than a product they were charged with promoting. (And then, ever the performer, he laughed and threw in a trademark quip: “At this age I’m starting to lose my short-term memory. And my long-term memory. And my short-term memory.”) Now over 20 years after having written it, his words on perseverance are still relevant. The timeless questions all artists ask, the self-doubt, the sacrifices, and the ultimate need to create.

It was perfectly fitting that Michael was performing right up until the end, gracing stages and giving everything and more to whoever showed up to hear him. Even as he suffered from emphysema in his last days, he would leave his oxygen in the dressing room to take the stage and power through his set. His respect and gratitude for audiences never ceased. He was a pro. Music was as much a part of who he was as the rhythm of his beat-up heart. The guitar an extension of his body.

One of the last times I was with Michael was about eight years ago when he took me to my first Nashville Symphony concert at the newly unveiled Symphony Center. We got dressed up for a big night out, and after we arrived and sat down in the seats he had chosen—directly behind the orchestra so we were looking right into the conductor’s face—we both felt like giddy kids. We were smiling, laughing and in awe of the beauty of the musicians and instruments in front of us as they warmed up. And I knew he was thrilled to be able to give me this gift.

When the performance started, it felt like we were a part of the orchestra, virtually in the pit with them, following the maestro’s every move. It was holy, overwhelming and one of the most moving experiences of my life. At one point I looked over at Michael and saw one of his hands holding mine and the other resting on his knee, his fingers gently conducting the air. And when I glanced up at his face, his eyes were closed and his cheek tear stained.

This is how I will remember my beautiful, broken, kind, funny, brilliant friend. A man with no daylight between the music and his soul.

—Lydia Hutchinson

[Top photo from Blue Rock Studio]


Thoughts on Perseverance: Had Enough?

By Michael Johnson

[From Performing Songwriter Issue 17, March/April 1996]

MJ_3

I am out here bouncing around in the wind, out of balance, slipping. Not practicing what I preach: not warming up, showing up late, preoccupied. I’ve been foolishly busy with writing, scheduling, rehearsing, performing and booking. I’ve not been keeping my guitar and voice in shape—crummy health habits, road food, not resting, tired all the time.

Back home, off the road, I’ve been spending my days putting out fires but not really moving forward, just trying to find the top of my desk. It builds up while you’re gone and it can be overwhelming. So now, once again, it’s my turn to think about hangin’ it all up. Quitting. The long overdue end of a childish dream. They say you’re only young once but you can be immature the rest of your life. Well maybe I’ve been a kid too long. Maybe I’ve done my best work. Maybe …

I am scared about money. My chances of winning the lottery would only be a little better if I actually entered, but I guess it’s probably not gonna happen anyway. (I deserve it though, I’d give some to you, too. You’d be OK.) I’m tired of the stress of living on commissions and promises but no guarantees—the “We’re definitely penciled in for Thursday” kind of commitments that you hear on the phone.

I know, we all have our horror stories—but they do accumulate. You get tired of things going wrong. Like driving home from the airport after a trip and, unbelievably forgetting to close the passenger door to my Karmann Ghia and watching the guitar slide out and under the wheels (soft case—felt like I hit a big rabbit—totaled my Kohno). Fighting the loneliness—battling the hormone fairy on the road.

During past rites of passage such as this, I have several times left the guitar leaning against the wall outside a hotel room door all night. I have forgotten to get paid. Once I flew across country with an empty case. I have lost my wallet, glasses, sunglasses, car keys and daybook several times. Locked myself out of a running rental car (catching my coat in the door in sub-zero weather in the bargain). Laughable. To a point. I feel like a secret agent with amnesia. I have been leading at least a double life. (Funny—these things don’t seem like omens until you see them on the page.) I walk upstairs and say “Now what was I gonna do up here?” Alzheimer’s? No. Just road burn.

So why is it that now, when everything is so up in the air, so generally trashed, that music is singing so clearly and directly to me—giving herself to me? Caught between the moonlight and the morning, and in my own current personal upheaval, I believe without a speck of melodrama, that music has been saving my ass lately.

MJ_2There really isn’t one aspect of the business that I can’t get into, but when I get overwhelmed like this I feel like I’m suffering from my own personal time famine. It’s hard to begin any one thing, and then once I’m into it, it’s hard to stop. Too many different kinds of work—it’s hard to put down the guitar to answer the telephone. Then it’s hard to put down the phone. Then it’s time to enter the new names into the mailing list. I will never be able to keep all the balls in the air.

So I quit. I have had enough.

No, I don’t quit. I persevere. I focus. I plan and project, and dream and try to learn to delegate.

When I first started playing, I didn’t really care about forever, or broken bones or lost loves or things I still have trouble forgiving myself for. Then, in my 20s, I’d make deals with myself like, “I’ll perform in these bars until I’m 28, then I’ll decide.” I’d wake up at 30, remember my pact and resolve to make a mature, big person decision by 34 … then one day I just said, “This must be what I do.” I didn’t decide to be a musician, I just have to keep deciding to stay one.

Oh, I’d have great reasons for getting out. There is a saying: “To be a poet at twenty is to be twenty.” Everybody’s a goddamn poet when they’re 20. Well I’m not 20 anymore and singing love songs to adolescents doesn’t appeal to me. I have become such a cynic about lyrics. I’m repulsed by the pop philosophy of new age/country/acoustic/alternative gushing from almost all quarters in radio music. So, like many musicians, I listen to public radio—it often wins by default. There’s just nothing else on.

It’s a tough time to be a recording artist; playing the radio game—the “keeping the format in mind” kind of thing, seems more rigid and limiting all the time. There are far too many artists, and radio and the label people don’t really want to break any new ground, they just dress like they do.

Times have changed too. I’ve been privileged to play with some great artists in some famous clubs over the years. People and places I thought would last forever are gone now. My previous peers have become adults with real jobs, some trying to stay close to performing, have gone into publishing, or working at the labels; some have become full time non-performing writers with publishing deals. Nashville is the home of the frustrated artist-become-songwriter because they can’t get arrested out there. There are too many people on the road. They do the occasional guest set but otherwise stay close to home. They often say how much they miss performing.

And the clubs: Mother Blues, The Quiet Knight, The Second Fret, The Exodus, The Earl of Old Town—somebody’s probably selling plumbing fixtures in those buildings now.

So I quit.

No, I do not quit.

michael-johnsonWhen I pick up the guitar after not having played a week or two, I am always surprised to find how much I need it and have missed it without even knowing. I find comfort and take pride in myself as an artist, and so I get to feel really lousy when I let myself down … abandon the muse, walk out on the idea, don’t write it down or practice or don’t do whatever the next right thing is. So I promise myself that I’ll get back on the bicycle—try to focus again. (Why is it that when I find the things that truly help me in my life, I don’t do them? Meditation, exercise, friends.)

I could teach. I’d be a good teacher, because I like people and I really have something to say and I know how to do that. Yeah, I’ll be a teacher.

Not yet. In spite of it all I still like the life. The traveling and connecting with old friends and discovering what has occurred to them over the years since we last saw each other. I’d surely miss the late nights and the magic. And, always, the music.

It’s more than hard to give up. It is more than an addiction. I wouldn’t insult it by calling it an addiction. It shows me who I am. So I won’t quit. Not yet. Maybe someday, maybe even soon, but not yet. I love it and so I do it.

Hell, I’ll be performing until I fall and break my hip. As a matter of fact, now that I think of it, I was probably at this when you were still in the booster chair and I will be doing this long after you pack up and head on back to dental school, Bubba. In fact, I’ll be working even after I break my hip. And let me tell you this, creep, if you think you can waltz in here with your little “Love-lite” world view and take my gig away from me, you’re out of your mind.

See you in the nursing home. — MJ

Category: Best of PS

Comments (20)

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  1. He lived in a chicken coop across Minnetonka Blvd from my home on Martha Lane. I sold Girl Scout cookies and when the door opened, there was an array of guitars.I had just begun playing at 8, puffed up and said that I played too.
    His music called deep unto deep, and I never felt alone when my heart was breaking. I knew by that pull in his voice that he had walked ahead of me. 51 years later, I still play guitar. I have an array. Thats how long Ive loved him. Goodnight bright star.

  2. Michael Retzinger says:

    Michael Johnson was the finest. I saw him perform in the early 70’s at the UW-River Falls.
    “For All You Mad Musicians”…A soundtrack for life. He was an artist at moving one’s life.
    He was unbelievable…His music moved me to places my heart never knew were there.

  3. Levi Strauss says:

    One of my heros. Saw him in 1975; I was a freshman at a little Catholic college in North Dakota. Two years later; an army of compadres spent a year filling our little auditorium for our young college’s first bona fide concert. Ironically and parallel to some of Michaels frustrated thoughts in your article; I passed up being a career promoter because he spoiled me. Though a music promoter of my beloved music soul food of quality classic rock and rhythm and bluesers would have been my one work passion to this day; something told me I couldn’t stand to be disappointed by shallow performers in it for the wrong reasons and without soul. I got mine; early at 18. And never drank bad wine; again. My hero and compadre, Michael. Pilot Me. Pilot Me. Levi Strauss; your prairie soul brother.

  4. What a loss. And thank you Lydia for this terrific piece. You’re so right, SO Michael. I met Michael 100 years ago when we filmed a commercial for United Airlines. The spot was about – 3 musicians waiting for a flight, playing songs… Brother, you couldn’t do that today. We co-billed here in Chicago through the years, and he’s right, all this clubs are gone. Still gonna do it Michael, and I’ll be singing some for you my friend. Meet you at the pass.
    I love you~

  5. Karen Cameron says:

    Thank you for sharing this again. He was a kind soul with an amazingly dry wit. Hard to believe I’ll never pick up the phone and hear “I’m in Dallas for a ‘telephone show’ want to come hang out?” That voice! Will miss it forever.

  6. Ken Spooner says:

    That was the real Michael, real talent , and real human

  7. Pat O'Neill says:

    First heard Michael in 1973 when KWEB Rochester played “Rooty toot toot for the moon.” Many of his songs were in the library at WCCO-FM.

  8. Michael Camp says:

    Hey Lydia,
    Thanks for this. I know he’d appreciate it, too.
    lv2u.mc

  9. Rob Hahn says:

    What a wonderful musical talent MJ was! He played my college one afternoon, a free performance for students. I had some time before class, and grabbed a seat. I skipped my class to see the entire show, and did it again the next day when he returned. A couple of years later I saw him at the Guthrie theater, touring for “All You Mad Musicians” – still my favorite album. Saw many of his shows over the years, and he always lifted me up. I miss his voice already.

  10. Kurt Hoffman says:

    I attended Augsburg College, in Minneapolis, in the early 1970s. Michael entertained us up in the cafeteria on many Fridays. I purchased his first vinyl LP in 1973, & still have it. I saw him in concert whenever I could, especially enjoying his Boxing Day concerts. After his transition last month, I purchased CDs of his first three albums, even though I still have serviceable vinyl copies. Rapture.

  11. Sean O'Shea says:

    Thanks so much for this. I really enjoyed it. MJ was a huge musical influence and I already miss his sweet voice and dry wit.

  12. Kerry Getz says:

    Someone once told me not to fear writing about the most intimate, private thoughts, because they’re the most universal. So I shouldn’t be surprised that Michael’s article expressed so many musicians’ secret concerns. He was a gifted artist, eloquent with both guitar and pen. Thanks so much for sharing again, Lydia. Btw, I’m quitting, not quitting.

  13. May I put this on Mj’s website, with credit of course? Such a lovely article.

  14. Frank Walsh says:

    I first heard Michael’s music when Give Me Wings appeared on Days Of Our Lives around 1986. I’ve been singing it ever since. Thanks for reposting this, I remember reading it in the actual paper version of Performing Songwriter.

    • Lydia Hutchinson says:

      Ha! I probably saw that episode of days, too, Frank! Am so glad you got to read it in the original form back when Michael penned it — he was such a good writer. Wishing you all the best.

  15. Wondetful- needed to read that…right about now…thanks Lydia
    RIP Michael

  16. Laura Gold says:

    Thanks for this Lydia. I am a long time fan of Michael’s music and guitar playing. I’m so glad I got to see him perform a couple of years ago. I could see he was fragile (though I wasn’t sure why) but he gave a stellar performance. It was intimate and moving.
    I hope you’re well💜

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